Estée Pouleris: I had the privileged of interviewing Pattie Fitzgerald, a leader in Child Predator Safety Awareness, a few months ago about Preparing your Kids for Sleepovers from a Sexually Inappropriate Perspective. We had such a great response to the article we’re delving deeper into the conversation today – this time discussing how to keep our kids safe from sexual predators online.
I personally am an avid facebooker and instagramer, I really enjoy connecting with people. I’ve lived a lot of places and I love keeping in touch this way. I’ve done some research and according to a 2015 Pew report, the majority of kids say they feel more connected to their friends through social media. So obviously there are some benefits to social media, but there are also serious cons – we’re going to discuss those today.
Pattie Fitzgerald: It’s wonderful that you start with the pros. I like the ability to connect with people all around the world who are either friends or read my work so I’m a big fan of facebook and instagram. I think it’s here to stay and if we completely forbid children from using them, we’re working against ourselves because that’s the kind of thing that forces a child to get sneaky and go underground. We want to start out having a good conversation early on.
Social Media Accounts, Legal Age & Invasion of Privacy
Around 9 years old kids tend to get interested in social media. By law the age is 13 to open a facebook or instagram account. If a child wants to be on facebook at 8 or 9, we need to ask ourselves why. One thing you can do is use it together from your own facebook page – share your page with them. It starts them out learning how to do it in a responsible way by watching you. It’s important for parents to set the rules and tone by starting the conversation early on. Explain to children that things go viral and are shared so easily, sometimes with people they don’t even know – ‘tricky people’. These are people who pretend to be someone online but they are somebody else in the real world. Tell your kids you want to protect him/her just like you do in the real world.
The legal age for snapchat, facebook and instagram is 13 years old. If a parent has given their child permission to open an account before the age of 13 what you’re really telling your child is:
- the rules don’t matter
- this is not the real word
- it’s okay to lie
By allowing a child under 13 to set up an account you’re shooting yourself in the foot because you’re setting the tone for lying online, being sneaky online and/or engaging in a way you may not engage in the real world. I find this is one of the biggest problems parent’s don’t realize unless someone points it out to them. And when children break the rules because they’re not developmentally able to understand the consequences of their actions, and they’re quite impulsive – then the parents get mad and wonders why they did that. It’s unfair to the kids and certainly doesn’t teach them responsible online behaviors. You wouldn’t let a kid have a stranger or bunch of acquaintances at their house at this age, so why allow them to do it online – it’s really a false sense of security.
Estée Pouleris: So when a child opens a social media account, do you recommend they only accept friend request from people they know?
Pattie Fitzgerald: Absolutely! And only friends they know in the REAL WORLD. We’ve got the cyber world and the real world but they are absolutely connected and almost the same thing. Parents should have their children’s passwords for every site and be checking those friend lists. Kids will sometimes friend a friend’s friend and assume it’s okay, but it may not be…for a number of reasons.
Estée Pouleris: How often should you be checking their accounts and ‘invading their privacy’?
Pattie Fitzgerald: I have an issue with calling this ‘invading their privacy’ and I hear that a lot. We monitor their friendships in the real world. We know who their friends are. We know who those parents are. We want to know where they go after school. They don’t have a private life that we don’t know about. And this kind of thing is much different than searching your child’s room and looking through their diary. This is not the same thing. I don’t consider it invading their privacy. I recommend looking at their accounts about once a week, but not the same day every week, just check in regularly but unexpectedly.
Cell Phones and Sexting
Estée Pouleris: I know all of these apps are available on cell phones now. What is the right age for a child to get a cell phone?
Pattie Fitzgerald: If they have a lot of freedom or independence after or outside of school – usually this is around 5th grade – they should/could have a cell phone, but they shouldn’t have a cell phone with all the bells and whistles. No internet access. If I have a 5th grader who goes from school to football practice or dance practice, perhaps by bus after school, I want my child to be able to reach me and I want to be able to reach my child. As much as I don’t like giving a child a cell phone too early, it gives us a sense of comfort and gives the child a safety net so they know they can reach their parent. There are cell phones where you can only make a phone call or make a text.
Estée Pouleris: Well if they have a phone that can text, they can sext. When do you start having that conversation with them?
Pattie Fitzgerald: If I’m going to give my daughter a phone at 10 years old I have to let her know texting is ONLY for friends she knows and certain types of language and communication is off limits. If they get a cell phone that allows texting, they need to be taught what cyber bullying is. They need to know they can’t text anything that is mean, or if they’re are mad at a friend they shouldn’t start texting. There are serious consequences and kids can get suspended for this. I would also check your child’s texts and talk about inappropriate pictures. One of the trends that I’m seeing that is very alarming is that sexting is happening at a younger and younger age. It’s not high school kids anymore, it’s middle school now. It could be that their parents are doing it, the media is showing it – these kids are very vulnerable and impressionable. Everyone wants to be a Kardashian, which is not to disrespect the Kardashian’s, but young kids don’t understand the implications of certain types of pictures. And they’re curious – sexually they’re hitting pre-puberty and their sexuality is coming into play. I think once middle school hits (6th, 7th & 8th grades) you need to have a serious conversation about sexting. Sometimes boys are asking for the pictures because they’re starting to like girls. And girls are starting to send the pictures because they want to be liked or popular. There’s the added bonus of peer pressure at a sleepover where all the girls are saying ‘he really likes you, you should send him a picture.’ Another kid will promise not to share it but as soon it arrives the temptation is too great and they share it with their best friend and it continues on. If your kid is going to sleepovers, find out from the other parents what their technology policy is, and blame it all on me. Say ‘Patty Fitzgerald recommends that parents do not allow technology at the sleepovers.’ If so an hour or two in the kitchen but at a certain time all phones go to the dining room or kitchen table. This should be announced once the kids come over so it’s not a surprise. They may balk but it will be short lived, there are hundreds of other things to do at a sleepover if they’re not relying on the phone or computer.
Gaming and Online Strangers
Pattie Fitzgerald: Gaming sites are also concerning. Parents need to explain to children that just because you’re in the privacy of your own home doesn’t mean strangers can’t reach out to you and figure out who you are. I don’t like the idea of playing with strangers online. I think it sets a tone that is confusing to kids – if I can play with a stranger online why can’t I text them or send them my picture. I’m in my own home…so I’m safe. It’s very confusing and muddy to a child and it’s why we’re having all these problems – kids get so many mixed messages from even their parents. Online predators are very clever. They go to sites where kids go. They know what kids like. They know how kids talk. They know the lingo and the slang. They engage as if they’re children. They will slowly leak out information from your child and your child won’t even realize they’re giving it out. They will find out things like what time do you get home from school, when can we play again, do your mom and dad watch when you play I hate when mine do…those kinds of conversations slowly develop into friendships. Then the predators can find out where they live or what school they go to. It’s a very slippery slope. There are ways to turn off conversations completely and I recommend parents do this. Disable these features.
Building a Safety Net
Estée Pouleris: How much detail should I go into about how kids can get lured and what could happen? I want my daughter to spread her wings and make her own identity, yet I don’t want to scare her.
Pattie Fitzgerald: We have to be honest but keep in mind developmentally how much a child can emotionally handle. You can say something like ‘There are tricky people online. They try and trick kids. They want to find out more info about kids. They’re just kind of yucky so it’s best we set up our own safety net so we don’t get tricked.’ A kid may say ‘well what will they want to do if I give them too much information?’ You can respond ‘well they may want to find you in the real world and that could be risky.’ Again, it’s figuring out developmentally where they are. I’d talk to a 12 year old differently than a 9 year old. With older kids you can go as far as to say ‘there are people who are inappropriate with kids and one way to find a kid is to make friends with them online. And since you have freedom in the real world I have to put this safety net up around you.’
Estée Pouleris: Are you a fan of Parent/Child Contracts or Safety Pledges, or is this just false security for parents?
Pattie Fitzgerald: I actually am a fan of them when children are young. It’s an education tool to start the conversation. If you give it to a child at 9 or 10, that’s a good idea. But if you introduce it to a kid at 12 or 13 they’re going to look at you like you’re crazy. They’ve already formed their ideas. Start conversations about cyber safety at 9 or 10 years old so that when they get older you’ve already laid the ground rules, and one of those is that contract. I did it with my own daughter. We had the contract and we both signed it. It wasn’t just for her and this is the part I really liked – it had some guidelines: this is a privilege, there are consequences, there is a time limit, only friends in the real world are allowed. So we had points in the contract and we both signed it. She signed that she promised to stick to the rules set by her parents for her cyber use. And the parents signed they promise not to freak out if their child makes a mistake or has an online problem that they need help with. Kids don’t want to feel like you’re the police. Having the parent sign it is symbolic, it shows that you’re in this together. Parents can use examples from their own lives too, like how they have to be careful so they don’t get hacked or measures they take so they don’t get their identity stolen. Even safe adults follow these types of rules too.
Estée Pouleris: There are a lot of new Apps. Some have GPS trackers, Yik Yak, Kik, Periscope and Snapchat…how do you manage these?
Pattie Fitzgerald: You have to limit what they can be on. Snapchat is okay and one of the most popular one, after a certain amount of time they auto erase (so it’s hard to monitor and kids know this) but it’s important to show a child how someone can take a screenshot and it’s going to be saved…so it doesn’t really auto erase. Role play with the technology to show them how quickly it can resurface. Physically show them this.
- There’s no such thing as private.
- There’s no such thing as auto erase
- There’s no such thing as getting it back.
The reality is we’re not going to catch everything. There’s no perfect solution. But we need to start by teaching kids young about what is appropriate, start monitoring them and really instill the importance of the inappropriate pictures and cyber bullying consequences . Set parameters around what apps they can use and what ones are off limits. You can always revisit the conversation in the future. This technology is a privilege not a right. There has to be consequences for breaking the rules.
Estée Pouleris: So the takeaway seems to be that social media is here to stay. Our children are going to use it whether we’re supportive of it or not. So we may as well figure out a way to be supportive with them and come up with a plan to keep them safe.
Pattie Fitzgerald: And start the education early so by the time they’re at a riskier age they’ve already got some ground rules of what is okay and what is not okay. Limit what sites they can use. (Kik is not a safe one, kids meet strangers on other sites then get invited to kik). Musicl.ly and Live.ly are popular but be sure privacy setting are secured! Lastly, do not allow kids to use hashtags!!!!!! NO HASHTAGS! Parent’s can physically go into each app and turn locations and hashtags off.
Pattie Fitzgerald is the founder of SafelyEverAfter.com, Inc. and is recognized as a leading expert in the field of sexual abuse prevention education and child abduction prevention. She is certified as a Child Safety Educator & Child Visitation Monitor, and has worked tirelessly as children’s advocate for over fifteen years. As a former teacher, Pattie blends her expertise as an educator and, more importantly as a MOM, to teach parents and kids her effective, non-fearful “Safe-Smarts” curriculum, which is now used at schools throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain.
Admired for her positive approach, Pattie is also the author of two highly acclaimed children’s books: ‘No Trespassing, This is my Body’ and Super Duper Safety School – Safety Rules for Kids & Grown Ups. She has been been featured on Dateline, NBC, Good Morning America, CNN, The Today Show, MSNBC, as well as countless national and local news programs.